Steamboat coach Chris Decker foresees a lot of positives for the 2000 season, but with a young squad, his Sailors have a lot to learn yet on the wrestling mat.
Moffat County finished third in the state in 1999, and with five state-qualifiers returning in 2000, the Bulldogs will run the conference. They also will run to the state tournament where many feel that Moffat County has a legitimate shot to finish as the Class 4A champions.
Steamboat's Levi Muhme is the only returning state qualifier for the Sailors at 135 pounds. But Decker hopes that his three seniors will guide the Sailors to a respectable finish.
At 145 pounds, senior Lee Gittleson has matured into a good wrestler, Decker says, and senior Jamie McKelvie should add strength to the group. McKelvie, who wrestles at 152 pounds, sat out last season but has been eager to get back out on the mat this year. The only problem so far is that McKelvie has been bothered by a back injury that occurred during the football season.
One of his teammates in football, Gaspar Perricone, is a wrestling newcomer. A junior, Perricone wrestles in the 189-pound division but also has some back problems. When healthy, his size and strength will make an impact.
Decker said he also expects for sophomore Justin O'Leary to contribute heavily, and for junior Wes Adams to have a successful season. O'Leary was the runner-up in the 112 pound class at Saturday's Steamboat Invitational. Adams placed in the top three in the 171-pound class.
"I've got a lot of young kids and I'm excited about having them on the team," Decker said. "But we have a long way to go. Last year, we didn't have a lot (of wrestlers). This year, we're only looking up."
Steamboat has 17 wrestlers on its 2000 roster, but Decker would certainly profit more from a larger lineup. With 10 underclassmen starting at the various weight classes, the Steamboat wrestlers will have to gain experience in a hurry.
"That's only going to happen out on the mat," Decker said. "We'll probably start off a little slow this year, but by the end of the season I think the kids will start seeing some success."
The Sailors will certainly be a scrappy group this season, but realistically, Moffat County owns the league.
The Bulldogs finished No. 3 in the state in 1999. With five-state qualifiers returning this season, including 125-pounder Mark Hastings, the Bulldogs are loaded with talent. Hastings was 39-3 last year and Ryan and Travis Linsacum, who wrestle at 135 and 140 pounds respectively, each won 38 matches last season.
Moffat County has a powerhouse schedule in front of it, but that only figures to make the team stronger by the end of the year.
"We have some pretty tough guns, I think," Bulldogs coach Roman Gutierrez said. "If we stay healthy and injury free we should be knocking at the door this year."
Rifle also returns five state qualifiers to its 2000 team, including junior Justin Hampton in the 112 pound division. Hampton went 30-12 in 1999.
The Bears were back-to-back Western Slope League champs in 1995 and 1996, and 1998 and 1999. They lost 215-pound state champion Alfonso Alifini to graduation, but the team will be a solid No. 2 behind Moffat County. Alifini's brother, Anthony Alifini, is a future star for Rifle. A sophomore, Anthony Alifini wrestled at 189 pounds last year. But Bears coach Jim Suminski says that little Alifini has bulked up since the offseason.
"He got a lot bigger and stronger," Suminski said. "He just did a lot to improve himself over the summer."
Suminski knows Moffat County has the tools to win the conference, but he and his wrestlers have high goals too, he said.
"Moffat County's going to be the one to beat," Suminski said. "I imagine they probably will be the (preseason) number one team in the state. Our goal is to beat them."
Palisade also hopes to have some success against Moffat County, but Palisade will have to wish that for another season.
The team has not done bad in post-season action, considering that it has placed in the top 10 in the state six times under coach Stacey Burke. The team's highest finish under Burke was No. 3.
Palisade has five state qualifiers returning, including senior Nick Walling at 152 pounds and Chad Personeous at 130 pounds.Walling placed sixth in the state in 1999.
Burke has realistic goals for his team this year.
"I hope to place at state in the top 10 and in the top three or four at regionals," Burke said.
In Avon, the Battle Mountain Huskies are already preparing for next season, according to first-year head coach Paul Noble.
Battle Mountain went 6-4 in duals in 1999, but the team has only two state qualifiers returning. The Huskies recently wrestled in a tournament at Middle Park, where senior Johnny Tafoya placed in the 130-pound class.
The goal, Noble said, with so many underclassmen on the roster, is to gain the experience necessary to be a contender in 2001.
"We're really young and pretty raw," Noble said. "We just expect to get better this year and maybe compete pretty well next year."